This Old Firehouse: What can towns do when their fire engines can't fit in the historic station?


For centuries, America's firefighters have raced to one crisis after another, returning always to the local station. In some cities, that building is 150 years old. It's easy to get nostalgic about that kind of continuity.

But unlike preserving schools or churches, saving historic firehouses becomes more complicated when towns confront the simple truth that garages built for handcarts and horses don't fit 30-ton, 40-foot trucks. So what does a community do with its firehouse when new vehicles are too big?

For decades, firehouses were torn down without regard to cultural or historical value, and new stations were built in their places. But recently, communities have begun to save their firehouses or to adapt them for new uses.

"Firefighters have a love-hate relationship with their stations," said George Burke, spokesperson for the International Association of Fire Fighters. "In many instances, they love being in the old buildings because of the tradition and the history, but at the same time the buildings are not up to snuff. Remember, these are their homes half the time."

Tradition is not always practical. Older stations were often designed with the dormitories on the second floor, and firefighters reached their trucks by pole. Over the years, poles have caused sprained ankles and broken bones, so new stations are designed with the preferred first-floor dormitories.

"Fire stations come in all shapes and sizes," Burke said. "The older ones can be drafty; they might have wiring problems. There's only so much you can do to an older building. It's tradition versus efficiency."

When a fire company has to abandon its inefficient station, local residents often jump to the rescue. In Worcester, Mass., a 1901 station abandoned since 1986 had been overrun by drug activity and vandalism. When it went up for auction in 1995, photographer Geoff O'Connell was the only bidder. He paid just $5,000 for the 17,500-square-foot building.

But that was the easy part. Vandals had stripped the station of all its ornamentation, even the brass fire pole. For the first few months, O'Connell slept with a baseball bat next to his bed. Six years later, he and his wife Lori are still renovating it. Originally housing a hook and ladder company, 11 firefighters and their horses, the station is now a home and studio.

Across town, the Webster Square Station, an 1893 Gothic revival building, was not so lucky. As the city grew, its firefighting needs increased, so it opted to tear the station down.

When preservationists convinced the city to expand the building instead, they found that neighborhood groups favored demolition. "It was an area where there were more fires per block than anywhere else in the city," said Jim Igoe, director of Preservation Worcester, which led the fight to save the station. "I made it clear to them that our organization would not stand in the way of public safety."

Then tragedy struck. In December 1999, six Worcester firefighters died in a warehouse fire, and the city faced new pressures to protect its own. Runaway costs doomed the Webster Square restoration project, and the station was demolished last spring.

"The city was almost as disappointed as we were because they had pretty much agreed to save it," says Igoe.

Hudson, N.Y. (population 8,000), may also be forced to build one new station to replace its six older firehouses on Main Street, all built between 1850 and 1880. The town's newest truck wouldn't fit in any of the existing stations, one of which is the oldest continually active station in New York. Hudson City Council member Judy Meyer says closing the stations will be hard on everyone. "Each station is a family. But the handwriting is on the wall."

Meyer said the city would try to protect the buildings and find new uses that befit them, such as museums or antique stores.

"Stations used to be abandoned or torn down," Burke of the International Association of Fire Fighters said. "There's more interest in preserving now. There's a lot of life left for these fire stations."